Maple Syrup: Made the old fashioned way with old fashioned goodness with modern day health benefits


March 24, 2011
The first proclamation about maple sugar is that Mother Nature is in control.

"It (maple sugar) is completely weather dependent. There is nothing that you can do to prepare," says Robyn Pearl, publicist for the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association. The $5,000,000 industry in New Hampshire produces on average of 90 gallons of maple syrup yearly, she adds. Whatever Mother Nature hands out each year, New Hampshire is still the third largest producer in New England and fifth in the country.

George Weston of Weston's Farm in Fryeburg, whose family has been farming for over 200 years, agrees about the weather. "We are 100 percent dependent on Mother Nature for maple syrup. On a farm you can play around with Mother Nature with things like irrigation, but not so with maple sugar," says Weston.

It is the cold nights and warmer days, which makes the sap run. Weston explains that come fall, the sap is stored in the roots of the trees. Just before spring when the days warm to 40 degrees, the sap begins to flow up the tree. The sap is the life-blood of the tree journeying out to the branches to eventually make leaves. Maples trees, particularly the rock maple, have the sweetest sap. Even though maple syrup comes from three different maples in New Hampshire.

The taste is the same. The only difference is the sweetness.

"There are three grades: light medium and dark. The beginning of the season when it is colder you get a lighter grade, then the sap darkens as the season heats up. It all tastes the same to me," says Weston.

"There is one tree that gives a different flavor. "I have tried birch syrup and it is nothing you'd want on your pancakes," says Weston laughing.

Maple sugaring goes so far back in history that most historians credit the Native Americans to being the first to tap trees to get to the syrup. " There are many tales as to the origin of maple syrup, my favorite tells the story of how a Native American women was cooking under a maple tree and a branch broke off dripping sap onto the hot stones where she was cooking. She discovered how sweet the sap was," says Weston.

Perhaps the tale is a true tale. At the Remick Museum in Tamworth, education coordinators tell visitors how the Native Americans made maple syrup and maple sugar. A wooden trough was filled with sap and hot stones were transferred to the trough from a fire. The sap heated up to boiling and gradually formed maple sugar. The Native Americans tended to make maple sugar rather than syrup because it did not go bad and could be stored all year, explains Rick Canfield, site crew coordinator and Jamie O'Hagin, education coordinator.

Colonial settlers brought with them modern technology. They learned to make maple sugar from the Native Americans. The European settlers added cast-iron pots to boil the sap and wooden buckets to collect the sap. Maple syrup and maple sugar were made by boiling the sap over open fires. As the sap boiled down and became closer in consistency to syrup, it was transferred to smaller containers, continues Canfield and O'Hagin.

Today, the ingredients are the same: sap and water. The process mirrors that of days of gone by but now an indoor evaporator -which helps to speed things up- a holding tank, synthetic strainers and a hydrometer are used.

"We do it the traditional, rustic way," says Weston who houses his sugar shack in the family's old garage, which used to house a Model T.

"You tap a hole in a tree to catch the sap as it moves up the tree. We like to tap under the branches. We want fresh wood. The rule of thumb is that the tree should be at least as wide as the bucket," explains Weston.

Sap is then collected and transferred into a holding tank located in the sugarhouse. The sap filters down by a gravity feed from the tank into an indoor evaporator, which pretty much takes up the whole sugarhouse garage at Weston's. The evaporator is fired by wood.

Weston has about 200 taps out this season and hopes to make 100 gallons of syrup. He says that up in northern Maine on the sugar camps, they may have as many as 12,000 taps, but they produce thousands of gallons of syrup.

It is no secret that it takes 40 gallons of water to make one gallon of syrup. Eventually the water and sap are boiled down to make syrup. The syrup goes to a finishing pan. Weston uses a hydrometer to test the density. He then strains the syrup through synthetic strainers to catch any dirt or bark. The hot syrup is poured into jugs, ready to be bottled. "Unopened syrup can be stored for up to two years, once it is opened it should be refrigerated," he says,

Up in Intervale, at Believe in Books Theater in the Wood, this is AO Lucy's second year of maple sugaring at the sugar shack in the 100-acre wood. Lucy himself has been sugaring his entire life and also agrees the season is up to Mother Nature.

"The sap hasn't been running for a few days, Mother Nature isn't cooperating," says Lucy this past Sunday.

We all know that could change any minute. It usually does, last year the sugar shack produced 90 gallons of syrup and this year they are hoping for 200 gallons.

Lucy makes syrup in the same way, firing the evaporator with split wood and carefully monitoring the sap as it boils. He also treats visitors to snow on ice. Hot syrup poured on snow.

Snow on ice tastes good and can be good for you. Pearl says that maple syrup is known to have trace mineral benefits and points to a recent study at the University of Rhode Island.

Here's what the study says.

Last March, University of Rhode Island researcher Navindra Seeram, presented his maple syrup healthy findings at the American Chemical Society's Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

Seeram, who specializes in medicinal plant research found more than 20 compounds in maple syrup from Canada linked to human health. Many have known that pure maple syrup contains trace minerals zinc and magnesium, good for a healthy heart and for balancing cholesterol. Seeram found 13 more.

Several are reported anti-cancer, anti-bacterial and anti-diabetic properties. Seeram and his team found phenolics, a beneficial class of anti-oxidant compounds found in berries.

Seeram explains his findings in a press release on the University of Rhode Island's web site: "We know that plants must have strong anti-oxidant mechanisms because they are in the sun throughout their lives," says Seeram.

Syrup may have the same benefits as berries. "We already know that berries, because of their bright colors, are high in anti-oxidants. Now we are looking at maple syrup, which comes from the sap located just inside the bark, which is constantly exposed to the sun," says Seeram.

The maple sugar season isn't over yet. There is still time to see how it is made and to sample the good for you syrup.

Here's what is happening this weekend:

Maple Sugaring Tours in the 100-Acre-Wood are going on this week and this weekend, March 26 and 27 for the Inn to Inn Maple Weekend: Call 356-9880 or visit http://www.believeinbooks.org/MapleSugaring.html.

Remick Museum is holding group tours until March 25 and holds an open house on March 26 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call 323-7591 or visit http://www.remickmuseum.org.

Weston's Farm is holding its annual open house at the sugar shack on March 27, Maine Maple Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visit http://www.westonsfarm.com for more information.

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